Making traditional Italian venison pasta sauce is pretty straightforward, but it does require some patience because of the long cooking time involved. As you only have to stir every half hour or so, this is a perfect sauce to prepare during an autumnal (rainy) Sunday afternoon. It freezes well, so it makes sense to make a large batch and freeze it in portions.
Ragù is the Italian word for a meat sauce with or without tomato (in the latter case it is called bianco, white). It is not a tomato sauce with meat, but a meat sauce that may include tomatoes. Italian game stews and pasta sauces are generally quite similar: the ‘holy trinity’ of onions, carrots, and celery is used of course, and what sets them apart from regular stews and ragù is the use of spices, especially juniper berries. As venison is very lean meat, you may like to enrich the sauce with some cream before serving. It rounds out both flavor and texture of the sauce.
Ground venison is not a very common product in supermarkets, so this is where owning a meat grinder comes in handy. Venison labeled as ‘stewing meat’ is perfect for this.
For about 10 servings
1 kilo (2.2 lbs) ground venison
100 grams minced onion, 100 grams minced carrot, 100 grams minced celery (about 3/4 cup of each)
800 grams (28 oz) of canned tomatoes, pureed
250 ml (1 cup) red wine
2 bay leaves
20 juniper berries
1 stick cinnamon
4 Tbsp olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper
250 ml (1 cup) cream, optional
Mince the onion, carrot, and celery. The food processor can do this much more quickly than we can (or you have outstanding knife skills and a very bad food processor).
Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a casserole (Dutch oven) and add the minced trinity. Season with salt.
Stir over medium heat until the vegetables are golden, about 10 minutes.
Add the ground venison.
Stir over high heat until the meat has lost its raw pink color.
(I do not brown the meat because although it does produce some nice flavors, it makes the texture of the meat gritty. The nice flavors will come during the long cooking time anyway.)
Add about a third of a bottle of good red wine. (Never use bad wine for cooking. There is no need to use a very expensive wine, but it should be good as you will definitely taste it if you use bad wine.) Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring.
Add the pureed tomatoes, and stir to mix.
Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a very slow simmer. There should only be an occasional bubble rising to the surface.
Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add 2 bay leaves, a stick of cinnamon, 2 cloves, and 20 juniper berries. Count everything, so you will know how many to remove later on.
Cover and simmer for 4 hours, stirring every half hour or so.
The ragù will be ready if it has thickened and has a full flavor (rather than watery). Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Remove the juniper berries, cinnamon, cloves, and bay leaves. At this point the ragù can be frozen (in portions) for later use.
Before serving, gently heat up some ragù in a non-stick pan. Add some cream if you like…
…as well as some freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.
Add drained pasta or potato gnocchi to the ragù, and toss to coat the pasta with the ragù.
Serve at once on preheated plates, sprinkled with some more parmigiano.
This ragù is great with a medium-bodied sangiovese such as Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino, or Sangiovese di Romagna. If you use cream, the latter is probably your best option because it generally is less astringent than sangiovese from Tuscany.
If you think making potato gnocchi from scratch takes too much time, ‘water gnocchi‘ are a great alternative. These are made by adding flour to boiling water, similar to making dough for eclairs or puffs. In Italy this is called gnocchi all’acqua (water gnocchi) or gnocchi di farina (flour gnocchi). These gnocchi have the same texture (but not the potato flavor) of good homemade potato gnocchi, but are a lot easier and quicker to make.